CISD braces for possible cuts in state funding
With the Texas Legislature set to gather in Austin later this month, officials from the Conroe Independent School District are waiting to see how severe a projected state budget shortfall will be so they can plan accordingly.
The Texas Comptroller will announce the official number on Jan. 10 in their Biennial Revenue Estimate — a day before lawmakers convene for the 82nd regular session of the state Legislature.
In the meantime, estimates for the projected deficit range across the board.
"I've heard everything from $3 to $28 billion," CISD superintendent Don Stockton said. "We have not heard a final number."
The 2011 regular legislative session runs from Jan. 11 through May 30.
Stockton still feels confident that CISD is ready for any outcome.
"We feel like we are prepared for whatever comes out of the session," he said.
The best scenario would allow the district to continue under their current funding system, Stockton said.
"I'd be surprised if there aren't any cuts, though," he said. "We're waiting to see how much, and it's just too premature right now. Once the session starts and we get some direction, we'll have some tough decisions to make. Across the state, we're all waiting to see where we're going. It's going to take awhile to get some direction."
Stockton explained that CISD is constantly searching for ways to cut costs.
"We look at our spending every year. This year, we've reduced our energy costs by $2.5 million," he said.
CISD's budget for 2010-11 is $340 million, an increase of nearly 4 percent over the 2009-10 budget of $327.2 million.
He also said that since state funding operates on an economy of scale, it helps that CISD is a larger district.
C.J. Haynes, past president of the CISD board of trustees, said that the district has maintained a healthy fund balance.
"CISD is set pretty well for adversity," she said. "We've been very efficient, and we've been planning well for what-ifs."
Haynes added that CISD starts their budget process in February.
She said the board will try to stay in touch with state representatives for any news that may affect their process.
Mel Brown, current president of the CISD board, agrees that the district is prepared for budget cuts.
"With the leadership we have, I think we'll be okay in the near future. We're not in a bind, like other school districts," he said.
Brown still wonders about the long-term effects of the deficit.
"With the budget shortfall, they have to take the money from somewhere. It will affect us eventually," he said.
Facing a challenge
District 15 state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, acknowledges that it will be difficult to handle the state's budget gap, but he maintains a positive attitude.
"The budget's going to be a challenge this session. I still don't know how severe it is," he said.
District 4 State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the Legislature will have to keep a vigilant focus on where each taxpayer dollar goes during this session.
"The next budget cycle will be tough, but we have consistently demonstrated that we can keep taxes low, maintain essential services, and keep spending in check," Williams said.
Eissler said state budget short falls will lead to education cuts, but he sees this as an opportunity to rework existing systems.
"The bad news is the state is short of money," Eissler said. "When you're short of money, you can redo the allocation. Let's find a way to take advantage of a bad situation."
Eissler also serves as the House Public Education Chairman, and his goal for the upcoming legislative session is to rethink education finance. "I'd like to overhaul the school finance system with an eye toward efficiency and protecting our children," he said.
Eissler said that his standard of efficiency is based on student achievement per dollar spent.
"It's not how much but how well you spend your money," he said. "You don't want to punish those schools that are doing well. If you are going to make cuts, you want to do it surgically."
Economizing the budget
Eissler said while most schools would not want to make cuts, a lot of districts in the state are already looking for ways to economize. He cited CISD as a good example.
"CISD takes care of their money. They're pretty efficient," he said.
Eissler said schools that are already efficient should not be affected by his proposed overhaul.
"Since I don't think anyone's going to get more money, we might as well work on making the system more equitable," Eissler said. "Of course, you can't guarantee anything going into session."
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